Paige Bueckers is back, and if the Connecticut guard is not 100 percent, well, her coach Geno Auriemma had something to say about it on Tuesday.
“Some people at 90 percent look better than some people at 100 percent,” the longtime Huskies coach said. “So, it’s all relative, right?”
Bueckers has been sidelined for 19 games through a broken left knee during a 73-54 win over Notre Dame on December 5, but has slowly returned to form over the past nine games. She reached a game-high 27 points on Monday night in the Huskies’ 91-87, double overtime victory over top-seeded NC States in the Bridgeport, Connecticut, regional final.
It was Bueckers’ best game since his return for a 93-38 victory over St. Louis. John’s on February 25th.
“I was not sure if she would ever be able to play at this level this year,” said Auriemma.
The victory lifted the second seeded Huskies (29-5) for the 14th consecutive time in the Final Four. They meet Stanford (32-3) for a tip at 6 p.m. in the first of two national semifinals Friday at Target Center.
South Carolina (33-2) and Louisville (29-4) will win in the other semifinal around 20:30.
Bueckers scored 15 points in the second half of the regional finals and missed just one shot off the field, keeping UConn half a step ahead of third-ranked NC States. She made a big 3-pointer, blocked a key shot in the piece, hit 4 of 4 free throws in the final seconds and added six bounces.
And yet, Bueckers, her coach said, is not entirely herself – even though it looked like she was Monday.
“To the outside viewer, it may seem like, ‘Well, that’s the same Paige I remember,” Auriemma said in a teleconference on Tuesday. “Well, for us here every day, maybe she’s some days, maybe she’s not. But last night when she had to be, she was. “
Bueckers, the second consecutive point guard who was the nation’s top recruit as a senior at Hopkins High School, will play in her second consecutive Final Four, this time at home in Minnesota.
“Two days ago I said, ‘Win or go home,'” Bueckers told ESPN’s Holly Rowe after Monday’s game. “Well, we won and I’m going home anyway.”
Bueckers is still tied for the team’s lead with Cristyn Williams (14.7 ppg), but averaged 21.1 when she was injured to take the ball on the court in the closing seconds against the Irish. She had surgery on December 13 to repair the fracture and will have a relatively short turnaround on the biggest game of the season, three days of rest, travel included.
While her minutes have increased significantly in the NCAA Tournament – she played 45 minutes on Monday after scoring just nine in a 70-40 victory over Villanova on March 7 – Auriemma does not assume Bueckers will be brave and healthy on Friday not.
Even though she thinks she will be. Auriemma pointed out on Tuesday that Bueckers had missed most of the past offseason after undergoing surgery to repair an ankle injury left over from her high school days.
“She happens to be doing things that are hard to explain,” Auriemma said. “Now I go through what she says to me and how she feels and what I see. So, if I see that it looks good, I go along with it. When I see her struggling, I take her out. That’s how we are going to work this weekend. ”
Bueckers played as a grade eighth at Hopkins and helped the team advance to three Class 4A championship games and win it all in an unbeaten season as a junior. The Royals advanced their senior year to the title race before being canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Last season, Bueckers led the Huskies in points (20.0), assists (4.9) and steals (2.3), becoming the first freshmen to win the Wooden Award, Naismith Trophy, Associated Press player of the year and acquired USBWA player of the year.
So, yes, she’s always been a little different.
“You know, Paige is a normal child. She’s no different from any other child her age; she happens to have tremendous talent,” Auriemma said. “But it takes time if you were away for a while. Paige thinks she’s 100 percent. Paige thought she was 100 percent the day of surgery. She thought, why can I not exercise when I get home? So, she does not do what a normal child does.
“So I was wrong, she’s not a normal child.”